Plato’s Republic, Book I: Introduction (Part I)

Plato’s Politeia, or “regime,” later translated and romanized by Cicero and the Romans as “Res Publica” or The Republic, is a narrated dialogue. It is narrated by Socrates in the first-person as he speaks to an unnamed individual (or individuals). Socrates recalls the events the day after they occurred and shortly before the events of the Timaeus dialogue.

As with the totality of the Platonic corpus, nothing in the Republic is erroneously placed. Every character and conversation has an important piece of the meaning of the dialogue. As has been noted by Leo Strauss, the Platonic dialogue imitates the ‘manyness and multiplicity of being,’ or the complexity and heterogeneity of life, and thus the Platonic dialogue forms a cosmos unto itself with the purpose of helping humans by providing a grounding from which to articulate the great mysteries of life. Each dialogue deals with one particular truth, and it reveals a certain part of the mystery. Nowhere in Plato do we find the Platonic “doctrine” or “treatise,” as we would with other modern writers, such as Kant. The Platonic dialogue is a different kind of truth-telling that masks the opinions of the author. The Republic, the most famous political work of all time, is identified through its title by the author, Plato, as being about the “regime,” and its theme is explicitly pertaining to justice.

The Republic begins as a descent, or a “downgoing.” Socrates recalls his descent from the city of Athens down to the port of Athens, the Piraeus, which is the seat of the Athenian navy as well as all things foreign and diverse in the democracy. Socrates ventures down to the Piraeus with Glaucon, a brother of Plato and one who Xenophon said was cured by Socrates of his extreme political ambition. Socrates intended to pray to the goddess in the Piraeus and also to observe the festival of Bendis, a novel foreign religious ceremony that was being held for the first time in Athens.

When hurrying back to town Socrates and Glaucon are stopped by a son of Cephalus named Polemarchus, the “warlord” who orders his slave boy to command Socrates and Glaucon to wait by grabbing hold of Socrates’s cloak. The scene sets up an imitation of the future discussion on the nature of justice in which, appropriately, the warlord employs the use of arms, not letters, to compel people, while Socrates responds skeptically. Socrates asks the boy about Polemarchus’s whereabouts, while Glaucon is easily swayed. A moment later Polemarchus arrives with Adeimantus, Glaucon’s brother, and also Niceratus, and several unnamed other men from the festival of Bendis. Polemarchus notes that Socrates and Glaucon are outnumbered and he compels them to prove stronger or else stay. He is concerned with the power of number, force, and the majority rule. Socrates, the philosopher, offers an alternative: instead Polemarchus could try to persuade Socrates and Glaucon to stay. The conversation on justice is involuntary. Polemarchus claims that they will not listen to persuasion, and Glaucon submits. Before Socrates can submit to force, Adeimantus, the most important man in the group, offers a persuasive alternative -the spectacle of a torch-race on horseback which is novel because of the horse-race and not the goddess. Polemarchus promises another sight before and after dinner. Ultimately, Glaucon makes the decision (his third decision) to stay with Polemarchus and Socrates has no choice but to abide by the decision of the overwhelming majority. The conversation on justice begins in a democratic process that emerges from the initial tyrannical impulses of Polemarchus. Thus the conversation on justice is owed to a mix of persuasion (Adeimantus) and compulsion (Polemarchus). Perhaps Justice, as duty or obligation, is a similar mixture of reason and coercion.

Though the promises of sight seeing and dinner are alluring, they do not come to pass and the conversation on Justice leads the men from the afternoon into the early morning, with the sun setting into darkness at some point during the conversation, perhaps at the beginning of the fifth book. Devoid of food and sightly pleasures, The Republic proves to be an act of moderation, of self-control in the example of Socrates. Perhaps The Republic presents the cure for any political ambition, extreme or otherwise.

It is important to note the context of this risky conversation. The problems of the regime are exposed at Cephalus’s home which is located in the Piraeus. Ten men are about to gather at the home of a foreigner, five Athenians, four metics, and one foreign teacher of rhetoric. Here in the Piraeus, the memory of old Athens is faint. It is far from the ancient Marathon fighters, and instead it embraces the sensation of new and strange things, such as the Festival of Bendis. Socrates, Glaucon, and Adeimantus prove to be concerned about this new political reality and they offer a desire to restore political health to the city. Harsh criticisms of the democratic regime are made in the dialogue, without objection, and others in the room express interest in reform. This conversation can be taken as a prelude to the age of The Thirty Tyrants, or “The Thirty From the Piraeus,” in which a group of men tried to regain control and restore virtue to Athens by extreme authoritarian measures. The Thirty ruled for thirteen months after defeat of Athens by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. Some of the men present for the dialogue in The Republic become victims of The Thirty. In this way, the dialogue mirrors other Platonic dialogues: Socrates speaks to generals who are defeated or are about to be defeated in the Laches; Socrates discusses moderation with future tyrants in the Charmides; and so on. In The Republic, Socrates speaks to a group of future victims of unjust men attempting reinstate justice. Some of The Thirty were followers of Socrates, like the cruel Critias, while some men in the dialogue, like Lysias, managed to escape The Thirty. However, Polemarchus (the man who is most responsible for the dialogue) ultimately fell victim to The Thirty.

For this reading I used Allan Bloom’s essential translation of Plato’s Republic, as well as Leo Strauss’s The City and Man and his lectures.

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